‘Philomena’: Martin Sixsmith Reacts to Seeing Himself Played Onscreen

Philomena Martin Sixsmith
Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage

The journalist wanted to help a woman find her son; for the Dench, Coogan starrer, Hollywood wanted a character arc

Journalist, author, historian, BBC foreign correspondent and British government adviser Sixsmith was at a low point in his career when he met Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for the son who had been stolen from her 50 years before, when she was sent to a convent as a pregnant teenager. Their quest became a book, then a film: “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, which debuts Nov. 22 via the Weinstein Co. Coogan wrote the script and plays Sixsmith in a portrait that is often unflattering. Variety asked Sixsmith for his reaction to seeing himself portrayed on the screen.

Having your life spread-eagled on the bigscreen is not for the fainthearted. You won’t get an easy ride, and the movie would be dull if you did. But being called a “feckin’ eejit” by the world’s greatest living actor is not something I’d reckoned with.

To be fair to Dame Judi Dench — for it is she who says so — there’s a lot of provocation. Her pithy Irishism is addressed to a snooty, annoying character called “Martin Sixsmith” (played by Steve Coogan).

And it comes at a dramatic juncture in the pair’s sweet and sour banter about life and faith.

OK, you’re going to sympathize with the lovely old Irish lady that is Dame J — not with the blase intellectual that is I. But a word of mitigation! The persnickety, pedantic fellow on the screen who corrects people’s grammar and mocks the afflicted is not (necessarily) all I. When Steve Coogan snubs a waitress, wallows in self-pity or flies into fits of biblical anger, I remind myself that this is drama, and I am suffering for Art.

Martin’s worst characteristics are exaggerated at the start so he can be redeemed at the end. He rescues Philomena by looking for her lost child, but she rescues him back by teaching him humility and empathy. The “Martin” of the movie’s end isn’t such a bad fellow, but it doesn’t make the beginning any easier for me to watch. As Irish people are fond of saying when asked directions to a distant destination, “I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

(Pictured: Martin Sixsmith and Steve Coogan.)

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  1. Mr. Sixsmith, please contact me. I have a story to tell about my daughter, Michelle Kuri (website below) and we advocate for all children and adults who are non-communicable (cannot speak) for a variety of reasons, neurological disorders, vehicle accidents, neurosurgery, Lou Gehrig’s disease, autism, and many others and when the children become adults, they become invisible, yet their identities are still there and their thoughts are there but no one cares to know what those thoughts are which are also connected to emotions. We, as a foundation, want to help, and I believe that if you could write her story, because it is unique, you would help tremendously.

  2. Betty Condon says:

    The movie was brilliant. Dench and Coogan were wonderful. The movie had a connection to me. I have been researching my mother’s family from Clare, Ireland. My mother’s cousin was “lost” and I have found out that she had a baby in the Abbey in Roscrea in 1945 and died 11 years later in a county home never seeing her child.

    • Aniko Mattison says:

      I too was adopted, never have known my parents. It leaves an awful big hole in your life and I cried a lot about it, but there is no way to find the truth now. At least Philomena found her son’s grave and that gave her peace.

  3. shirley Mckeon says:

    I saw the film this evening. A tender shocking story told with great sensitivity. Both actors were genuine believable and acted with characteristic understatement . Martin Sixsmith was clearly a great journalist to discover the whole truth and to expose with integrity.

  4. Susan Riley says:

    Went to see the film this week. As ever Dame Judi puts in a wonderful performance. But what a revelation Steve Coogan turned out to be. This very sad story was lifted out of pure heartache by the great rapport between the two actors. Really good.

  5. Jayne says:

    watched the movie tonight and have to say loved every minute of it a great mix of poignant and comic moments and very well acted in my opinion………… now off to buy the book!

    • Cryinigcarol says:

      Well….I needed more than the two tissues I took to the cinema. I have never been a fan of Steve Coogan…. but just love Dame Judi and all she does ( how magnificent was she with Billy Connolly as a crusty Queen Vic!) this film was an eye opener … Coogan was brilliant.

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